Q&A | Climate change expert extends vision to Yale

Last month, University President Richard Levin appointed Rajendra Pachauri, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and renowned economist and environmentalist, to the directorship of the newly formed Yale Climate and Energy Institute. Last week, the News sat down and talked to Pachauri about his plans for the institute and his views on climate change.

Q: What is your vision for the new institute?

A: That vision will have to be developed. It will have to evolve through the interaction of all the faculty that are working there. I would essentially be a kind of facilitator from having worked in the climate change field for some time. I would like to see how one can develop a level of coherence and linkages and synergy among all those working in the field of climate change and energy. And then [I’d like to] set some directions by which the institute gets known, can start making an impact and can do valuable work in the field of climate and energy.

Q: You already hold two very demanding jobs: chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute . How did Yale convince you take yet another leadership position?

A: Well I was telling people I’m underemployed, so I wanted work. [Laughs.] But no, I think it’s essentially the challenge of being able to guide the work of an institute of this nature. A university like Yale provides a remarkable opportunity to do something of value in developing and seeing the evolution of an institute [like this]. So it’s a professional opportunity and a challenge. Also, we are living in changing times. The United States in particular and, I will say, the rest of the world, have to change. And I think to the extent that the intellectual power of Yale and this institute can assist in making the right level of changes and the right direction of changes … would certainly be valuable.

Q: How much time will you be spending at Yale?

A: I will be coming seven or eight times a year, roughly for about two weeks at a stretch. That’s the kind of commitment that I’m looking forward to. There will of course be some flexibility; there will be periods where I come for a much shorter number of days and periods when I may be here for a longer period. Also, let’s face it. You really can’t have watertight compartments. Even when I’m not here on the scene, it doesn’t mean that I switch off completely. I will be working long-distance with colleagues over here, keeping in touch with things that need to be followed up. So it’s a responsibility which will involve much more than physical presence over here.

Q: What would you say to the skeptics of climate change?

A: Well, look at the work of the IPCC. These are thousands of scientists who have functioned in a transparent, objective manner. Everything that is assessed by the IPCC, every draft at every stage is peer-reviewed. … It’s an extremely objective, knowledge-driven process. It involves the best experts and scientists from all over the world. If their assessment doesn’t carry any weight and doesn’t have the imprint of truth, then I’d like to know what does. Essentially, I think the skeptics have to read the writing on the wall. They must understand the foundations on which the assessment of the IPCC are built and go along by accepting reality. But we also know that throughout history, whenever new areas of knowledge have emerged, there have been skeptics who denied the truth until they were blue in the face, and there will be some who will do that with climate change as well. But I’m happy to say their numbers are dwindling, although their voices are not getting any softer. So I think in a democracy, in a world where there is freedom of expression, you will always have some people who question even what is so obvious and so apparent.

Q: You were just recently at the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen, where universities going green was an important topic. What is your take on universities’ role in the field of climate change and related policy?

A: I think it is a very critical role. I mean, if the universities really have to be the torchbearers of change, if they have to show how knowledge can be applied for the benefit of the human race and for the enhanced welfare of the human race, then I think they have to do it themselves. They have to demonstrate that they have commitment to what they are talking about. You have to practice what you preach. It’s not merely within the campuses that you would see the influence of the right set of actions — it goes far beyond. Universities are very visible members of society, and anything that happens over here will get known outside. The students who have graduated from the university go out and work in every sector of the economy. If they carry a level of conviction, of values and knowledge that can make a difference, then clearly the multiplier is huge. Therefore, I think that universities have to be at the vanguard of change.

Q: Do you envision undergraduates being involved at the YCEI?

A: It’s difficult to say at this stage. Let’s see how the activities of the institute evolve. But clearly, if there is going to be a substantial amount of research, which I hope will be the case, then I think the largest number of students that we would see involved would essentially be at the graduate level. But let’s see how that happens. In my view, if there is a capable undergraduate who really has a commitment and has something to contribute in work in this area, then why not?